I Am My Own Wife
Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre
April 4 – 8 2017
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich. The Nazis, and then the Communists? It seems to me, you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.
Doug Wright, I Am My Own Wife
I Am My Own Wife is the most incredible theatrical experience; an intimate and secretive (like, a secret society downstairs underground back room Weimar Cabaret performance…oh, wait), and one of our more memorable evenings at the theatre; it’s one that I’ll treasure not only for its extraordinary story, but more so, for its captivating star performer.
Ben Gerrard saw the Tony Award winning production starring Jefferson Mays, which toured Australia in 2006 and “never in a million years would’ve imagined” that he would one day attempt to do the same, playing more than 30 roles in two acts over 90 minutes, to tell the true story of Berlin’s famous transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Pulitzer Prize winner, Doug Wright – he also wrote Quills, Grey Gardens and the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid – joined Charlotte in Berlin for a series of interviews over several years, in which she shared her survival stories and precious collection of antiquities, satisfyingly represented in this production by tiny wooden boxes, all of different sizes, hidden intrinsically within the surface of a quaint three-legged table. Against a wall of yellowed official documents, the stories spill forth, in a precise German accent and with a slightly mischievous sense of humour, which makes us wonder how much of any story is actually the truth. Gerrard is so completely convincing as this enigmatic character that I feel as if this is who I would expect to meet after the show. But we know the real Charlotte died of a heart attack in her eclectic downstairs museum, aged 74, in 2002. She had survived the Nazi and Communist regimes, collecting clocks and phonographs and gramophone records (“re-cords”), and other items of interest, and had been involved in the black market before she operated as an informant. She established an underground bar in her basement for Berlin’s LGBT+ community – the last Weimar Cabaret of the the gay 1890s – and dressed as a woman in sensible all-black-everything.
Caroline Camino’s simple, sombre design, Hugh Hamilton’s moody, poor man’s lighting and Nate Edmondson’s evocative soundscape wholly support Gerrard’s multiple voices whilst remaining true to the main character’s obsessions with precious things. Perhaps Charlotte’s love of objects more than people stemmed from the fact that there were very few upon whom she could rely. But then we discover that she betrays a friend and colleague, Alfred, and we understand that her loyalties do indeed lie at home, where she doesn’t need anyone. Proudly and defiantly, she offers the utterance that became the play’s title, “I am my own wife”.
A tender scene depicts the day of enlightenment for he-who-would-be-she, Lothar Berfelde, when the support of a cross-dressing aunt manifests in her wry observation, having caught him wearing one of her frocks, which she’d long since discarded in favour of men’s pants, that “nature got it wrong”. She gives him a copy of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Die Transvestiten, which becomes Charlotte’s bible for her newly self-determined life. It’s a beautiful story in itself, a quiet nod to our instinctual nature, our desire to connect with others – or not – and our need to be seen. This is just one of many moments, so sensitively, meticulously crafted by talented Director, Shaun Rennie, in which Gerrard captures our hearts and our imagination.
Having seen Mark Kilmurry’s production of David Williamson’s Odd Man Out (twice!), I was delighted to see Rennie have the opportunity this year to be a “fly on the wall” at Ensemble, under Kilmurry’s expert eye.
My favourite space here, the intimate Visy Theatre in the stripped-back Brisbane Powerhouse is ideal, allowing us to feel as if we’re there in the dingy room with Wright and his subject, peering curiously over his shoulder as he chats with her. The stories – the bits and pieces of them – are incredible, almost beyond belief, as tales of oppression and horror are to those of us lucky enough to avoid similar life experience.
And then came the wall. And for us here in Eastern Berlin, it was finished, gay life. The bars, closed. Personal advertisements in the newspaper, cancelled. No place to meet but the tramway stations and the public toilets?
So I thought to give homosexual women and men community in this house. Yes. It was a museum for all people, but I thought, “Why not for homosexuals?”… And there was over the bar an attic. When a boy or girl met a man, and wanted to go upstairs, they could. Two men, two girls, a boy and a girl? it did not matter….
There’s no rush to get past the uncomfortable details, including a gruesome self-confessed murder (yeah, but did you do it?), but instead, the moments are precisely measured and the mood is mostly constrained. Even in the opening moments, we get a sense of mastery and secrecy, and immense trust when Gerrard enters the dimly lit space to find his light centrestage, and sweeps his eyes over his audience, making eye contact with many of us from just a couple of metres away before he disappears into the darkness again… Something unspoken has happened, a deal has been wordlessly sealed.
Gerrard is a beautifully poised and accomplished actor who knows every trick in the book and still comes across as genuine and whole-hearted, able to make a pact with the audience early, and establish that rare and magical, unbreakable personal connection until the end. Later, Gerrard communicates on the same intimate level; open, curious, completely trusting. The quietest, strongest presence in a foyer full of excited, delighted and completely satisfied opening night chatter.
Who would have imagined that while the wonderful Elise McCann was with Matilda the Musical, winning a Helpmann Award for her work on stages around the country as Miss Honey, she was simultaneously making this humble little show happen, and having the most profound impact on a whole different sector of the community. If Oriel Group’s I Am My Own Wife comes anywhere near you, you simply must see it.